When I was a kid in the 1960s and we came back from a visit to my grandmother's, my mother used to call my grandmother, let the phone ring twice, and then hang up. It was important for my grandmother to know that we'd arrived home safely, but long-distance telephone calls were too expensive to indulge in unnecessarily. When I entered Vanderbilt University in 1971, my parents had to decide whether to pay for a telephone in my dorm room. They decided to do so, but most of the thoroughly upper-middle-class students on my floor did not have phones. Phones cost real money back then. Then came the breakup of the AT&T monopoly in 1984. Phone technology and competitive service provision exploded. In 1982, Motorola produced the first portable mobile phone. It weighed about 2 pounds and cost $3995. Within a very few years they were much smaller, much cheaper, and selling like hotcakes.
Today there are some 4.6 billion mobile phones in the world, and counting, or about 67 per every 100 people in the world. The newer ones allow you to carry in your hand more computing power than the computers that put Apollo 11 on the moon. You can cruise the internet, find your location with GPS, read books, send texts, pay bills, process credit cards, watch video, record video, stream video to the web, take and send photos -- oh, and make phone calls from just about anywhere. Unimaginable just a few years ago.
And to celebrate this incredible achievement, Slate and the New America Foundation are holding a forum titled "Can You Hear Me Now? Why Your Cell Phone is So Terrible."
This is an old story. Markets, property rights, and the rule of law provide a framework in which technology and prosperity soar, and some people can only complain. I was reading some of Deirdre McCloskey's forthcoming book Bourgeois Dignity this week. She points out that the average person lived on the equivalent of $3 a day in 1800. Today there are six and a half times as many people, but the average person earns and consumes 10 times as much, far more than that in the most capitalist countries. And yet some people, most leftist intellectuals, continue to ignore what McCloskey calls "the gigantic gains from bourgeois dignity and liberty" and to denounce the markets, economic liberalization, and globalization that have liberated billions of people from eons of back-breaking labor.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of consumer reporting and analysis, which is an important part of a robust marketplace. Competition and consumer reporting both help to keep prices low and quality improving. And there's plenty of room for criticism of cell phone pricing, contracting, and service. But when a discussion like this is held by a public policy research organization and a public-affairs magazine as part of a program on public policy, then it's not just consumer advice. It is presumably a discussion of what the sluggish, coercive institution of government can do to improve -- or more likely impede -- a fabulously dynamic, constantly improving consumer-directed industry. And that usually ends in tears.
Maybe we should hold a forum titled "Can You Hear Me Now? And Watch Me on Video? And Read My Book on Your Handheld Device? And Check Your Blood Pressure and Glucose? How Markets, Innovation, and Entrepreneurs Have Taken Cell Phone Technology from Clunker to Computer in Barely a Generation."
Lobbying reporter Tim Carney notes that some California marijuana growers are worried that a proposed legalization initiative could drive down the price of the product and adversely affect their incomes. They're holding meetings to deal with the threat. Some growers are just talking about creating an official Humboldt seal of approval. Maybe they could even get legal restrictions on who can use the Humboldt name, like Champagne and Roquefort. But some local stores sport bumper stickers reading "Save Humboldt County — keep pot illegal."
The story reminds Carney of this Reason.tv video featuring a spokeswoman for the purported American Marijuana Growers Association, who urge smokers to buy only American-grown bud:
And that video reminds me of this classic Saturday Night Live video, from those heady days in the '70s when television shows could joke about marijuana, featuring the American Dope Growers Union reminding viewers that when you buy pot from Mexico or Colombia, "you're putting an American out of work." (The SNL sketch was based on a much-broadcast commercial by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union singing "Look for the Union Label," to discourage Americans from buying foreign-made products.)
Union rules, protectionist laws, and sometimes even outright bans are all ways of avoiding the rigors of competition, seeking to prevent consumers from buying products and services where they're cheapest. Sometimes there are laws banning or taxing the purchase of goods from another country. Sometimes there are appeals to compassion and patriotism, like "Buy American" or "Buy Local" campaigns. Sometimes an outright ban on the sale of a product actually products the market for established illegal sellers, as the Humboldt County marijuana growers are thinking, and as economist Bruce Yandle theorized in his work on "bootleggers and Baptists."
The Washington Post's ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, is very concerned that "journalists of color" make up only 24 percent of the Post's reporters and editors. That might seem like a lot to some observers, but Alexander notes that minorities are 43 percent of the people in the Washington area, and it's essential that the newsroom staff mirror the community the paper is serving.
Well, maybe. As a longtime Post reader, I don't really know which of the editors and reporters are nonwhite, and I don't really care. I would hope that the Post would hire the best reporters and editors, in order to put out the best possible paper -- with the best possible reporting, writing, copyediting, proofreading, and analysis.
But if reflecting the community is essential, why are race and gender the only categories to be considered? Alexander doesn't mention sexual orientation. Does the Post have gay (and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and questioning...) journalists in the correct proportions?
And how about ideological diversity? In the 2008 exit polls, 23 percent of voters described themselves as white, Protestant, born-again or evangelical Christians. A survey of American religion said that 34 percent of Americans describe themselves as evangelical or born-again. How many editors and reporters at the Post would describe themselves that way? I'll bet that born-again Christians are the most underrepresented group in elite newsrooms. But they weren't mentioned in Alexander's column. A CBS/New York Times poll in December found that 18 percent of respondents described themselves as supporters of the Tea Party movement. How many Post journalists are? The Post has recently assigned reporter Amy Gardner to "train her sights on the emerging Tea Party movement and developments inside the Republican Party." Is she a Tea Party Republican? If not, isn't that sort of like hiring a white person to "train her sights on African-American politics and developments in the black community"? Cato's studies on the libertarian vote classify about 15 percent of Americans as libertarian. How many Post journalists would be categorized as libertarian?
Slate, the online magazine owned by the Washington Post Co., which shares some content with the Post, reported in 2008 that 55 of its 57 staff and contributors would be voting for Barack Obama, with 1 for John McCain and one for Libertarian Bob Barr. I'm not going to look up the details, but I'm pretty sure that's unrepresentative of the country as a whole and even of the Washington area.
If newspapers are going to move beyond strict merit hiring to hire reporters and editors who "reflect the community," then they shouldn't stop at race and gender. Let's see some ideological diversity in elite newsrooms.
Environmentalist groups and celebrities are celebrating "Earth Hour" tonight. They ask that you turn your lights out for an hour, to call attention to global warming. Folks at the Competitive Enterprise Institute suggest that "this sends the wrong message -- to plunge us all into darkness as a rejection of technology and human achievement." In fact, they point out that it's Earth Hour every night in North Korea, where people lack basic freedoms, as well as affordable, reliable access to many human achievements, such as electricity. Check out this famous photo of environmentally conscious North Koreans observing Earth Hour all night, every night.
CEI rejects the rejection of technology. They have declared the hour between 8:30 and 9:30 tonight to be "Human Achievement Hour." To join the celebration, just turn your lights on tonight and enjoy the human achievement of light when we want it. And watch CEI's short video history of human achievement here.
In Sunday's "Pearls Before Swine" comic strip, the nefarious Rat is now a PR flak. And when his client accidentally blows up downtown, he comes up with a solid economic defense:
Go here for Frederic Bastiat's original explication of the "broken window fallacy," and for way too much detail, go to Wikipedia. John Stossel breaks some windows here and talks to Walter Williams about the implications.
Fess Parker, the actor who portrayed both Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone in classic television shows, has died at the age of 85. In his honor, I offer this version of Parker singing the theme song "The Ballad of Davy Crockett":
And more substantively, I note that Col. David Crockett served three terms in Congress from Tennessee, where he is best known for delivering a speech known as "Not Yours to Give." In response to a proposal for an appropriation to benefit the widow of a naval officer, Rep. Crockett said:
I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the sufferings of the living, if suffering there be, as any man in this House, but we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for a part of the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living. I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has no power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member upon this floor knows it. We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right so to appropriate a dollar of the public money. ...
We cannot, without the grossest corruption, appropriate this money as the payment of a debt. We have not the semblance of authority to appropriate it as a charity. Mr. Speaker, I have said we have the right to give as much money of our own as we please. I am the poorest man on this floor. I cannot vote for this bill, but I will give one week’s pay to the object, and if every member of Congress will do the same, it will amount to more than the bill asks.
He went on to quote a constituent who had complained when he previously voted for a similar measure:
The people have delegated to Congress, by the Constitution, the power to do certain things. To do these, it is authorized to collect and pay moneys, and for nothing else. Everything beyond this is usurpation, and a violation of the Constitution.
He may not actually have patched up the crack in the Liberty Bell, but he did his best to preserve the Constitution.
It's that time of year again, when friends start telling me about this or that candidate I should support because he or she is a dedicated defender of liberty and limited government. I'm a political junkie, so I love getting these recommendations. But I don't end up supporting or contributing to many candidates. In my view, it's not enough for a candidate to say that he's "committed to slashing wasteful spending, providing tax relief, and eliminating red tape." What's your actual tax plan? What spending do you propose to cut or eliminate? Not many of them offer clear answers to that.
And liberty involves more than just economics. Often I'm told, "Congressman X is a libertarian." I always check, and then I say, "He voted for the war, the Patriot Act, and the Federal Marriage Amendment. Sounds like a conservative." Now a conservative who opposed President George W. Bush's trillion-dollar spending increase, his Medicare expansion, and his stepped-up federal involvement in education is a lot better than your average member of Congress. But those votes do not a libertarian make.
This year I'm looking for candidates who stand for freedom across the board, who want government constrained by the Constitution, who believe in the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace.
And that means I don't want to back candidates who support
the war in Iraq
the war in Afghanistan
war with Iran
the war on drugs
the constitutional amendment to override state marriage laws and make gay people second-class citizens
the president's power to snatch American citizens off the street and hold them without access to a lawyer or a judge
new restrictions on immigration
So don't everybody write at once. But I'll be looking out for political candidates who support liberty and limited government across a wide range of issues.
New York Times columnist David Brooks, President Obama's biggest fan among self-proclaimed conservatives, has been plunged into the depths of despair by the latest machinations of Obama and his congressional allies:
Deem and pass? Are you kidding me? Is this what the Revolutionary War was fought for? Is this what the boys on Normandy beach were trying to defend? Is this where we thought we would end up when Obama was speaking so beautifully in Iowa or promising to put away childish things?
Yes, I know Republicans have used the deem and pass technique. It was terrible then. But those were smallish items. This is the largest piece of legislation in a generation and Pelosi wants to pass it without a vote. It’s unbelievable that people even talk about this with a straight face. Do they really think the American people are going to stand for this? Do they think it will really fool anybody if a Democratic House member goes back to his district and says, “I didn’t vote for the bill. I just voted for the amendments.” Do they think all of America is insane?
Everyone in America, I presume, has just received a letter from the U.S. Census Bureau urging us to fill out our Census forms. Seems like a very expensive way to tell us to watch for the form to arrive in the mail. But I'm particularly interested in why they say we should promptly fill out the form:
Your response is important. Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of [federal] government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.
Obviously this is a zero-sum game. If my neighbors and I all fill out the form, then you and your neighbors will get less from the common federal trough. But at least we'll be getting our "fair share," as the letter tells us twice in three sentences.
But where does the government get the authority to ask me my race, my age, and whether I have a mortgage? In fact, the Constitution authorizes the federal government to make an "actual enumeration" of the people in order to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. That's all. Not to define and count us by race. Not to ask whether we're homeowners or renters. Just to ask how many people live here, so they can apportion congressional seats.
I'm not interested in getting taxpayers around the country to pay for roads and schools and "many other programs" in my community. All the government needs to know from me is how many people live in my house. And I will tell them.
More on the census and the Constitution here.
Should Democrats be worried that health care could be subject to a successful court challenge?
My response is:
I'm the first in my family not to be a lawyer. But Mike McConnell's article seems compelling to me. As he notes, Article I, Section 7, of the Constitution requires that a bill must pass both houses of Congress to become a law. Duh. And for those who have trouble with that concept, he goes on: "As the Supreme Court wrote in Clinton v. City of New York (1998), a bill containing the 'exact text' must be approved by one house; the other house must approve 'precisely the same text.'"
So the "deemed passed" rule doesn't seem to be constitutional. Then the interesting question is, Will the Supreme Court strike down a major piece of welfare-state legislation just because Congress didn't dot all the i's and cross all the t's. After all, some of us think the Supreme Court has failed to strike down legislation whose substance violates the Constitution. Would it be more forthright on a procedural issue? Would it dare to tell the political branches that they can't have the health-care program they worked on for 14 months, negotiating careful and complicated compromises in both houses?
But then, the reason that Democrats are contemplating such an audacious scheme is precisely that they can't find a bill that a majority of the House will vote for. So this wouldn't be like the Supreme Court striking down Franklin Roosevelt's Agricultural Adjustment Act, which passed Congress quickly and overwhelmingly in May 1933. It would not involve the Supreme Court standing up to the unified political branches. Rather, it would only require the Court to tell Congress that they have to actually pass bills before they become law, which apparently a majority of the House is not prepared to do.